All things come to a beginning

Sunday, August 13, 2006

The world at your feet

It is well-known to some that I despise Dido with a passion. You know, Dido? British, whiny unsteady voice (don’t believe the people who describe it as “fragile” or “smokey”. She took the way you hum to yourself in the bathroom when you think no one can hear you and you’re really not very sure of the words so you make them up at random and your voice is still sounding pretty rough from last night’s drinking & smoking binge and ever since you were about seven years old, you’ve always kinda sounded like you were a hundred and five even though you have the poetic depth of a fourteen year old so that’s a weird combo but your mom assured you that you’re the good kind of ‘special’ so who cares what everyone else says and made that into an art form), had that hit song with Eminem a couple of years ago and then a bunch more on European radio? She makes me want to die a little bit. Or at least change the station instantly. Well, to my own consternation I found myself giving one of her songs a listen a couple of weeks ago and actually being touched by the lyrics:

“I haven’t ever really found a place that I call home
I never stick around quite long enough to make it
I apologise that once again I’m not in love
But it’s not as if I mind that your heart ain’t exactly breaking

It’s just a thought, only a thought
But if my life’s for rent and I don’t learn to buy
Well I deserve nothing more than I get
Cause nothing I have is truly mine


While my heart is a shield and I won’t let it down
While I am so afraid to fail I won’t even try
Well how can I say I’m alive?”

It doesn’t all fully apply…If anything, I’ve found too many places that I call home (wherever your heart is, right?). But I do relate to that sense of having lived a fairly carefree life so far – ups and downs, sure, but nothing too major (touchons du bois). And of shying away from anything that reeks of long-term commitment. No serious boyfriends, forget the husband, and I don’t think I’ll have kids, hey, why don’t I just put everything I own into a backpack and not stop moving for the rest of my life and that way I won’t ever have to deal with anything! It’s perfect! Realistically though, when does the time come to sink your teeth in? To put your neck on a chopping block, shut your eyes, clench your teeth and hope for the best? To jump into the deep end rather than take careful steps down a ladder, ready to jerk our leg back up as soon as our toes touch the water surface? How do you gather the courage to put your signature under a contract, to selflessly give away your heart, recklessly board a plane, and put yourself out there? “Tussen droom en daad staan wetten in de weg, en praktische bezwaren. Ook weemoedigheid, die niemand kan verklaren en die des avonds komt, wanneer men slapen gaat” – I’ve always loved that quote. Willem Elsschot, a Belgian author, 1st half of the 20th century. It roughly translates as “Between dream and feat, laws get in the way, and objections of a practical nature. And melancholy too, that no one can explain and that comes in the night, when one goes to sleep”.

I read an article the other day about a Belgian man who’s lived in Mexico for the past seven years or so. He talked about the realities of Mexican living, his plans for the future and about other foreigners he encounters there. He was particularly harsh for young people: “You also get the twenty-somethings who come over for a few months, do a project with street kids, travel around a little. I don’t know why they come here, what they’re looking for”. Pretty disheartening how easily he turns what to most people is their Big Adventure into a cliché. But then, what is a meaningful way of organising your life?

I went into one of my favorite bookstores here in Leuven yesterday. It doubles as a café, great sense of style to it, the owners are nice, wide selection of books from across the world, it’s in a quiet side street…very nearly perfect. Even though I started out looking at the Asian section (one of my friends is leaving for Taiwan soon, for a year-long exchange and I wanted to browse the Lonely Planet guide for some cultural info and possible gift ideas), I inevitably gravitated towards North America and took out a book called “Canada Drive”. It’s written by a man who went on a cross-country trip with his daughter and kept a travel journal. Very few pictures, it’s mostly his observations, conclusions and whatever struck him as remarkable. I agree with a lot of the stuff he writes, things I noticed there as well. And it didn’t take too much page flipping before I felt a big lump in my throat. I miss it. And when Mike and Theresa ask me when I’m coming home, or Clara says being in Toronto without me is weird or Oksana gives me an update on the Tartu social scene, well, it doesn’t help. It would feel so familiar and comfortable kicking off the day at Ideal Coffee (as in “I deal coffee, not pot”, apparently the owner got sick and tired of people coming in looking for merchandise instead of the fair trade coffee he offers) in Kensington, shopping along Bloor and Yonge and Queen, some patio time at Future’s, a trip to the Islands if weather permits, a bento box at Simon’s, maybe finish off the day at the beach.

But are “familiar” and “comfortable” feelings I should be focusing on? If Toronto taught me anything, it’s that leaving is the easy part. More often than not, it’s sticking around that takes determination and guts. Facing yourself, your body, your background, your abilities and your options in the here and now instead of hiding behind a screen of travel plans and faraway futures. It seems too simple to project your ambitions onto another location – the way everyone does with the “After I’ve worked for a few years, I’m going to buy a villa in Italy/a farm in the South of France/a cottage in Canada/a boat wherever and get away from it all” scenario. Opium for the people: “I’ll endure this life I’m not entirely happy with for the reward that could come at the end”. There’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, though. And not always a second chance.

Maybe we do want too much too soon. Maybe we’re spoiled brats for having the quest for “emotional fulfilment” as our main concern and not, you know, nutrition and not dying. Maybe we should quit our whining and appreciate what we have when we have it. Be ambitious on a daily basis, not just in our vague long term plans. Make a friend – or a complete stranger - smile, ask a lot of questions, find beauty in something you see or hear, overcome your fears one step at a time, and strive to be someone you like. Take things as they come. See life as your Big Adventure instead of a trip or a year abroad. Maybe that's the only way out of the trap of cliches and dead end streets and black holes. "The race is long and in the end it's only with yourself", right? Who are other people to decide whether what you do is pointless or lame?

You know how women in their forties, when they’re interviewed by a glossy women’s magazine, always say they wouldn’t want to be in their twenties again for all the money in the world? Because back then they were so insecure and restless and worried? I’m not sure if they’re speaking the truth. But it’s quite possible.


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